The date of this issue of TIRF Today is June 30, 2022. The end of June often feels like the real beginning of summer to me. Typically by then I’ve finished my grading, the commencement ceremony is over, and my former students – like graduates everywhere whose school years end in June – are looking for work. And like many other TIRF volunteers, I am reading the current batch of Doctoral Dissertation Grant proposals. In various countries around the world, this year’s 56 applicants are eagerly awaiting the results.
Looking back, over forty years into the past, I remember being in a similar situation. In the spring of 1981, I was trying to finish my own doctoral dissertation. I was also applying for jobs around the United States, focusing on schools in small cities with TESOL programs. (After seven years in Los Angeles, I wanted to live somewhere less crowded.) That spring, I also attended the Language Testing Research Colloquium, which was held at the University of Michigan. My doctoral advisor, Dr. Frances Butler, had graciously included me in a conference presentation based on some test development research we had been doing at UCLA. I was a bit overwhelmed to be talking about our results to a room full of international experts – the very people whose research had shaped my study. One of the conference organizers was Adrian (“Buzz”) Palmer (now a professor at the University of Utah and a long-time TIRF supporter).
I was even more overwhelmed that evening at the buffet dinner party for the conference participants, which was held at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Palmer, Buzz’s parents. Our hosts lived in what is known as the Palmer House – one of the last houses designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I was totally intimidated – by the beauty of the venue, the architect’s fame, and most of all, by the guests. I was having dinner with almost everyone I’d cited in my dissertation. Those of you who know me may find this hard to believe, but I was absolutely tongue-tied!
Dr. Palmer Senior recognized my distress and kindly took me outside to the terrace and showed me the view through the trees. We talked about nature – specifically about the birds to be seen in that neighborhood. He was such a charming host that he quickly put me at ease. Then he said, “Watch this, Kathi.” He opened a cabinet and took out a large metal bowl and started pouring dry dog food into it. I said, “Dr. Palmer, I didn’t know you had a dog.” I hadn’t heard or seen any sign of a dog during the dinner party. “We don’t,” he said. “I just love to see the raccoons in the evening.” With the sound of the dog food spilling into the metal bowl, bright inquisitive eyes filled the trees and several large raccoons ambled onto the terrace and began to eat the dog food.
At that moment, Frances came out to the terrace and said, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you! I want to introduce you to some people. You need to be working the room and talking to everyone, especially while you’re job hunting. There are people here who might want to interview you!”
I said to her, “Oh, Fran – this situation is too high-powered for me! I just want a job at a little college in an environmentally pristine location – somewhere that I can teach English and do teacher training, and sometimes do research or publish an article. Maybe even write a book someday. I want to live somewhere that I can hike, and watch birds, and swim, and even feed the raccoons off my back porch.”
“Don’t be silly,” Frances said. “Come inside and let’s circulate.”
Somehow I made it through my awkwardness that evening. Looking back on the event, I realize I had no idea about how Dr. Palmer’s comment and his racoons would influence my life. I will return to the impact of that moment below.
In April of 1981, shortly after my experience at the Palmer House, I got a telephone call from a professor at a place I’d never heard of. It was called the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), and was located on the coast of central California. He said there was a job opening for a faculty member to begin a new TESOL masters degree program. The college president had asked him to see if I’d be interested in applying for the position. At first, I thought that this was a put-up job, a hoax – that someone who knew about my “dream job” had gotten a friend to call me as a joke and to entice me with the description of a non-existent position. In fact, I was quite abrupt with the caller. I simply didn’t believe him. But one thing led to another and eventually I flew to Monterey enroute to a different city for another job interview, and the mysterious caller became my host and chauffer for the day.
The day’s interviews went well and I was able to observe some classes in the Intensive English Program. I was captivated by the spirit of the place, where the mission was (and still is) to prepare future leaders of change in this world. Although the campus was small and the offices in the rickety old Victorian houses were shabby, the people I met were very kind, and their enthusiasm for the little graduate school with the big mission was palpable.
After the interviews and class visits, I was supposed to have dinner with the search committee. But first my host took me to his house, where we were to meet his wife before going to dinner. When we got there, he took out a large metal bowl and began to fill it with dry dog food. I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you had a dog.” He said, “No, we don’t. I just like to feed the raccoons off the back porch.”
I was stunned. The universe had occasionally sent me messages in the past, but never before had such nudges been quite as specific as this one.
The next day I flew on to a job interview at another university. But it was too late. My heart was already given. I had found my dream job on California’s central coast.
June 30th is also a significant date for me because exactly one year from today I will be retiring from MIIS (now the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey). What a different place it is now. The old Victorian houses have been replaced by new office buildings, additional classroom space, dormitory facilities, and a new auditorium equipped with interpreting booths for training conference interpreters. The library has been modernized and expanded, and there is a beautiful student center.
Am I looking forward to retiring? I’m not sure. What is certain is that the year to come will be filled with many more changes, including clearing out my office, emptying paper files of research data, donating my professional books to the library, and making space for some treasures at home. (It’s AMAZING how much stuff one person can gather in forty years!)
Another change is that, as of the September meeting of the TIRF Trustees, I will be retiring as TIRF’s President. As you can see from our lead article, my friend and colleague, Dr. Jun Liu, will be seated as the new President and I will pass the gavel to him (digitally and metaphorically speaking) at the end of our Board meeting. I am thrilled that Jun is taking on this role and I know that the Foundation will be in excellent hands with his leadership. I look forward to taking on different responsibilities for TIRF in the months to come.
So, in closing this Chair’s Report, I will invoke my usual theme: Please will you support TIRF? Jun’s tenure as President promises to be a time of growth for the Foundation. We want to reach out to more junior researchers in more parts of the world – especially Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America. Think about those 56 doctoral candidates currently awaiting messages from TIRF about whether their own studies will be funded. I wonder what they will have accomplished and what memories they will have when they look back on their professional path, forty years from now.
As I am reading these DDG proposals, I find myself wishing we could fund them all. The topics are varied and important. The research methods involved in these studies are fascinating. I look forward to seeing the results of this year’s DDG process and I want to remind you that you can be a part of helping TIRF’s DDG applicants achieve bright futures by making a donation to TIRF now.